Look around a college campus today and you will be hard pressed to find a student walking around without a cell phone, MP3 player or other wireless device. With students being more on the go and tech-savvy than ever, the days of disseminating information by posting campus news on the doors of dormitory bathroom stalls and community bulletin boards are quickly coming to a close.
To that end, many universities have embraced digital signage as a way to place critical and time-sensitive information in the hands of students, faculty, and other members of the university community. Digital signs allow schools to communicate information in a modern, attention-grabbing way that reaches its audience immediately. And most importantly, these networks can be managed easily by a single university staff member or administrators can give virtually anyone in the campus community the ability to contribute relevant news.
On the surface, digital signage appears to be a network of plasma or LCD TVs broadcasting the latest news. But behind the scenes, these networks consist of specialized software that allows campus administrators to easily create and manage content.
Digital signage software typically consists of three pieces: a designer, a content manager, and a media player. To make things simple, each type of software does precisely what its name denotes.
Designer software allows an administrator to create a template for the campus network. This could be a blank template in which to place information, or it could consist of multiple frames so different organizations with access to the network can have a specific area for its news, which can be updated in real-time. In the latter scenario, administrators limit organizations’ access so that they can only update the section of the digital template that belongs to them. Once information has been entered, the content management software takes over.
Content management software is a server-based application that schedules and manages the multimedia content submitted by campus organizations or administrators. It is the brains of a digital signage network. It can manage digital signs on a network from any computer connected to the campus internet or intranet, and the software supports plan-based content distribution, timetables, playlists and templates created with the designer software.
The content management software then communicates with players to run what the university community sees on digital signs. The players run continuously and update the content on digital signage displays based on the text graphic, sound and video transmitted by content manager. A university can purchase multiple player licenses so that digital signs in different locations can feature varied content. For example, if content playing on screens in a student union differs than the type of information that may be created for the admissions office, these two locations would require separate software licenses. By increasing the number of licenses, universities can ensure the content on its screens is more useful and targeted to viewers.
So, how are universities using this software to let their communities know what’s new? On-air community bulletin boards, emergency broadcast systems, campus TV networks and Jumbotrons in sports arenas are just a few applications. Universities with existing digital signage networks include Marist College, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Stanford University, Vanderbilt University, Indiana University and the University of Colorado.
Here are two specific applications at universities in Utah and New York.
Utah Valley University has harnessed digital signage to serve informational, promotional, branding, entertainment and emergency broadcast needs on campus. By putting a structured process in place for content generation, distribution and approval, UVU’s administrators and information technology officers have found digital signage offers a low-cost and efficient way to deliver fresh, relevant information to students, faculty and staff.
UVU’s digital signage network comprises 13 LCD screens in three locations: the library, student center, and administration building. To manage the network, the university purchased 25 licenses for content management software. Only registered student organizations, campus governance groups, academic/campus departments and offices, and college committees can use the network to display UVU-related information, including text, graphics and 30-second video.
To get an idea of how UVU news comes to life on the across the network, here’s how the university distributes the responsibilities for digital signage:
— It is up to campus departments and organizations to generate their content, submit it, and determine how long it should remain in the system. UVU’s policy is that messaging stays in the network for a maximum of two weeks. An exception to that rule is video, which only broadcasts for two days if it is longer than 30 seconds.
— UVU’s marketing department reviews all content before it enters the digital network. This includes the overall look and feel of the content’s presentation, university branding and images used.
— The Office of Informational Technology is responsible for overall network maintenance, including technical implementation, system administration and automating content integration with other systems.
— The Campus Imaging Committee and the Executive Infrastructure and Planning Committee oversee all digital signage policies, procedures, and standards.
Moving forward, UVU is hoping to use digital signage in its college of business for a finance lab that emulates the Wall Street experience. Only two other universities in the United States have these labs, which include video walls, RSS feeds, touch screens, and a host of other digital signage hardware and software technologies.
Across the country, the State University of New York in Binghamton uses a digital signage network to feed its students information — literally. In six of its dining halls dining halls, SUNY installed LCD screens because it wanted a high-tech way to mass communicate menu changes with students. Each dining hall houses from four to seven screens.
Unlike many universities that use a debit system to charge students a flat meal rate, SUNY dining options are a la carte. So, each item in the dining halls has a different price, and the menus change about every three weeks. Additionally, dining halls have different ethnic food stations, which also require menu and price changes.
Prior to going digital, campus food services invested thousands each year and many man-hours printing signs and flyers to notify the student body about pricing and menu changes. Now these changes can be made with the touch of a few buttons in the dining hall’s administrative area, and they are transmitted to the digital signage network in a matter of minutes.
Other than the menus, the SUNY dining hall screens also distribute university information that is useful to students, including campus events and weather. The screens are also used as a campus-wide emergency broadcast system.
For these universities and others, digital signage is more than just an emerging trend in communication. It’s becoming a tried and true method for reaching the thousands of students, faculty and staff who cross college campuses each day.
Andrea Waldin is the vice president of marketing for Scala Inc. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.